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Sprint Cup: Hamlin, Harvick, Johnson

Nine long months and 36 races, the longest season in professional sports began at Daytona International Speedway. Sunday, after an exhausting journey that took the NASCAR circus from coast to coast and racing venues as diverse as Talladega, Alabama’s high banked super speedway, to the tiny flat half mile Martinsville Virginia Speedway, the season will conclude. And don’t forget the road courses at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and California’s Infineon Speedway.


The pace of preparing different racecars for each successive venue, travel time and pre-race practice and testing make for a schedule and lifestyle that is not for the faint of heart. Not to mention the mandatory participation in various sponsor functions and time spent with media organizations. Not exactly your typical nine to five existence. Sleeping in your own bed, forget about it.
Sunday it all comes to conclusion. For the first time in five years the “anybody but Jimmie” faction has real hope of coming away from the weekend happy. Nobody doesn’t like Jimmie Johnson. On the other hand, Johnson doesn’t exactly generate interest, excitement or passion among race fans. He’s just kind of “Jimmie.” Most fans can take him or leave him.
Now Denny Hamlin, there’s a real homegrown success story. You can’t beat the combination of Hamlin and Joe Gibbs for local appeal. Who can forget the picture shown time and again of the youngster with the toothy smile getting an autograph from Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs, back in the day when the ’Skins were the Super Bowl Redskins and the coach was in the early stages of his NASCAR team. Remember the kid telling Gibbs, “I’m going to drive race cars for you when I grow up?” If you pitched that story to a Hollywood studio, they would laugh you out the door.
Kevin Harvick, a brash unknown youngster from California was just getting his feet wet on the Busch series for Richard Childress Racing. He was thrust into the national spotlight by the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500. No one can walk in a legend’s footsteps, much less a 25-year-old from the west coast with precious little racing résumé to speak of. But wonder of wonders, the young man pulled it off. Just three weeks after Earnhardt’s death, driving the former Dale Earnhardt Goodwrench Chevrolet repainted white and renumbered 29, Harvick won the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta. It was Harvick’s third race in a Cup car. Once again, any bets on selling such a story to Hollywood?
Hamlin and Harvick bring charisma, star power, a real life story the man in the street can admire, fantasize and get excited about. Jimmie Johnson is just a damn good racecar driver - end of story.
Sunday afternoon for the first time since NASCAR created its idiotic “Chase for the Cup” format in 2004, the series has a real down-to-the-wire fight for the championship. The soap opera goings on coming down to this weekend’s final could hardly be better.
As the Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus team has rolled up championship after championship the past four years one of the most common repeated strengths has been they have kept most of the same team members together throughout their championship years. They have become a well-oiled machine.
Well not exactly. Two weeks ago at Texas, by mid-race Johnson’s pit crew had lost him a total of 48 seconds and 11 positions on the track by slow pit stops. Crew chief Chad Knaus benched them on the spot and replaced them with Jeff Gordon’s pit crew. Following the race Hendrick Motorsports announced that the former Jeff Gordon pit crew would handle Johnson’s stops for the remainder of the season.
Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford ramped up the trash talking: “I think our race team is better than Johnson’s and I’m not going to tiptoe around because of where they’re at. I’m going to do what it’s going to require for us to win a championship, beat them.”
Kevin Harvick chimed in with, “I think when you’re trying to intimidate the guy who’s won four championships in a row, you might need to go rethink your strategy and just go out and worry about racing.”
Sunday it’s all on the line, no points racing, none of this finish 14th or better to seal the championship. It’s real racing for the checkered flag. Three great drivers, the circuit’s three top teams. Enjoy.
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